In August 2004, the Americans took on the Mahdi Army in Najaf city. Earlier that year Moqtada al-Sadr’s militia led a failed uprising, and then continued attacks upon the Coalition in southern Iraq. That led the White House to authorize offensive operations against his forces, which led to the Battle for Najaf. During the fighting, Iran was intimately involved on both sides. On the one hand, it had advisers with the Mahdi Army helping them battle the Americans. On the other hand, it facilitated peace talks with the Iraqi government and Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani to end the conflict. While that might seem like a contradiction, it perfectly encapsulated Tehran’s role in Iraq, which was to have connections to all sides to exert influence throughout the country.
At the start of August 2004, the Battle of Najaf began between the U.S. Marines and the Mahdi Army. During the fall, a new Marine unit moved into the Najaf area. They were told by the U.S. army that the city was secure, but upon inspection they found militiamen active throughout the city. That immediately led to clashes, which escalated into a battle for control of the city. The interim government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the office of Ayatollah Sistani were all involved in bringing the confrontation to an end.
Iran’s role in Najaf was two-fold. First, the Iranians were the main military supporters of Moqtada al-Sadr. That meant there were Iranian advisers assisting his militia inside Najaf, and providing it with funds. That came from the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force Department 100. The Marines also believed that they took on Iranian snipers and mortar teams. At the same time, Iran was worried that the confrontation would derail the January elections, which it hoped would give its Shiite political allies control of the new Iraqi government. It therefore sent its operative Abu Muhandis to meet with Allawi’s national security adviser Mowafaq Rubie, and told him that Tehran would help mediate a ceasefire. Rubaie and Muhandis flew to Najaf and met with the Marine commander to try to work out a peace deal. Allawi thought Sadr was gaining too much in the talks so he removed Rubaie. That led to Ayatollah Sistani’s office to take the lead. His representatives were in contact with Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah officials to try to work something out. The Ayatollah himself, had to fly to London for medical treatment. When he returned, he met with Sadr who agreed to withdraw his forces and disarm and in return the Marines would pull out as well.
Tehran came out ahead on all fronts. It supported its militia allies to oppose the American occupation. It showed when it came to Sadr Iran would be a main moderator. With the Battle of Najaf out of the way, the January balloting went ahead, and the parties it backed won. Finally, PM Allawi came out a loser in the confrontation as he was seen as compromising with Sadr rather than defeating him on the battlefield. That was important because as a former Baathist, Tehran was opposed to his government and to him winning any significant showing in the 2005 voting. In a nutshell, Iran had proven that it was a major player in Iraqi politics and the armed conflict, and it could play both sometimes at the same time to make sure its interests were served.
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Al-Khoei, Hayder, “Ayatollah Sistani and The Battle of Najaf,” Al-Monitor, 9/9/13
Weiss, Michael Hassan, Hassan, ISIS, Inside the Army of Terror, New York: Regan Arts, 2015